Juvenile Sentencing Guidelines


It can be a parent’s worst nightmare when their child does something wrong and ends up in juvenile court, but it might be some small comfort to know that this isn’t actually a criminal court at all. Proceedings involving juveniles are civil matters. If your child is found guilty of a criminal act, he’s “delinquent.” States have statutory guidelines for sentencing and sanctions, but they can vary. If you’re concerned, speak with a local attorney to find out exactly what your child might be up against.

Qualifying as a Juvenile

  • To say that a juvenile is a child is a bit simplistic. Although he qualifies as a juvenile until he reaches the age of 18 in most states, he may be considered an adult at 16 or maybe not until he’s 19 in other jurisdictions. Children under the age of 7 aren’t legally considered to have the mental capacity to understand that they’re committing a crime, so they’re not tried. Their parents can be sanctioned for their wrongdoings, however.

Misdemeanor Offenses

  • Several sentencing options are available to judges in juvenile court and they can range from mild to severe depending on the nature of the crime and whether the child has any previous offenses. Guidelines for misdemeanors usually dictate a short period of time in a juvenile detention facility -- about 30 days or less -- then probation and community service. Probation can also be ordered on its own, without detention time, and this is often the case with lesser crimes. Some states’ guidelines provide for electronic monitoring devices, either during probation or in lieu of time in a detention facility.

Felony Crimes

  • The situation becomes much more serious if your child is found guilty of a felony offense, although if it’s a non-violent crime, sentencing might mirror the misdemeanor guidelines. Otherwise, rather than spend time in juvenile detention, he might be sent to a more secure long-term facility, such as a camp.

When Juveniles Are Tried as Adults

  • Juveniles who commit serious crimes and who are close to the age of majority are sometimes tried as adults. It doesn’t matter what age the juvenile is at the time he goes to trial, but rather how old he is at the time he commits the offense. The prosecutor doesn’t initially bring charges in adult criminal court; the juvenile court must first find that the child should be tried as an adult and the case is then transferred to criminal court. Sometimes a child reaches the age of majority while serving a juvenile sentence and his sentence is then converted to or blended with time in an adult jail or prison. In several states, the judge can suspend the balance of his sentence after he reaches the age of majority. In others, the judge will decide at the time the child reaches the age of majority whether he should be sent to an adult facility for the remainder of his sentence. He can’t remain in a juvenile detention facility or camp after he’s legally an adult.

Judge’s Discretion

  • Judges typically have a great deal of discretion in juvenile court -- they’re allowed leeway from the guidelines based on factors unique to the child and to the crime. If a juvenile robs a grocery store for food for his family, the judge can take this into consideration. If staying within sentencing guidelines would result in a “manifest injustice” -- the punishment would far exceed the nature of the crime -- juvenile judges can usually deviate from them.


  • Photo Credit Jakub Niezabitowski/iStock/Getty Images
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